Lange:Thoughts On Labor Day

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(HOST) After over 50 years as a working
man, commentator Willem Lange has some thoughts about the celebration
of labor’s importance in our society.

(LANGE) Many years
ago, when I was teaching school, I regretted that, of the two
sections of English I taught, the kids in the so-called slow section
were scheduled to fit in with the other classes they took –
secretarial skills, typing, metalworking shop, and "vocational
arts." There were various euphemisms describing that section, but
in the teachers’ room they were "the slow class."

always thought it a shame that the kids who’d be working on our
cars, fixing our plumbing, installing our electrical wiring, and
growing our food were de facto denied access to what many of us call
the finer things in life. I sometimes heard it said they weren’t
interested in such things; but you should have seen two of them,
playing Brutus and Cassius, plotting Caesar’s assassination, or
their tears as we read the last scene of Cyrano , or their delight in
the metaphors and rhythms of Alfred Noyes’ "The Highwayman."
Yet they were relegated by the guidance counselor to typing other
people’s words and unstopping other people’s toilets. I was
delighted to find, at a twenty-fifth reunion, about half of them had
broken that mold and earned graduate degrees.

For millennia
we’ve divided our societies into those who have and those who do.
It’s a useful exercise, especially today , to Google Edwin
Markham’s remarks about his famous, but in its day controversial
poem "The Man with the Hoe," and then look for the Millet
painting of the same name that inspired it. All of us who live well
up on the pyramid of civilization could not be there but for those
beneath us who built and still support it.

It’s fashionable
among conservatives to deplore immigrant workers, some undocumented,
who are "stealing American jobs." The uncomfortable truth is,
most Americans won’t do those jobs anymore for the little they pay.
Vermont’s struggling dairy industry, for example, would be in worse
shape but for immigrant workers.

I never joined a teachers’
union because it rewarded seniority and opposed merit pay. I did join
the laborer’s union; if I hadn’t, the union would have shut down
the job. The creation of unions was essential because of blatant
exploitation by employers. Union-busters from John D. Rockefeller to
Calvin Coolidge to Ronald Reagan to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker
have been praised and demonized for battling union labor’s demands.

Labor Day is now experienced as a holiday weekend and the
official end of summer. But we might take a look, on what ought to be
a weekend of reflection upon all the things that surround us – our
houses, cars, appliances; the computers on our desks or laps – and
remember that people, most of them working for less than we do, built
and keep them going. Then we should give them a heartfelt thank-you
for what they do.

This is Willem Lange in East Montpelier,
and I must return to my – labors.

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